South Carolina Shake-up

Perry Exits, Santorum Wins, Newt Swings, Mitt Wobbles: The first-in-the-South primary just got a whole lot more interesting.

perry gingrich santorum
Win McNamee/Getty Images; Richard Ellis/Getty Images; Andrew Burton/Getty Images
Rick Perry, Rick Santorum and New Gingrich.
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If you love politics-as-sport, this is the kind of day you live for. It's three days out from the most important primary of the GOP race, and the contest – and the dominant media narrative – has just been scrambled.

Cast back to Iowa, where the official count from the GOP caucuses has changed the winner. Mitt Romney didn't win by eight votes. The victor was Rick Santorum in a landslide — 34 votes. No longer is Romney on a "historic" trajectory to the nomination as the first non-incumbent in a generation to capture the GOP's first two contests. He's now the guy who fumbled away a victory in corn country to a pol last seen getting drummed out of the Senate by a margin of 18 points. 

Then look to Texas, where Governor Rick Perry is now headed with his tail between his legs. After an epiphany over a hamburger at Wendy's last night, Perry finally concluded he has no "viable path to victory" and ended his troubled campaign. The beneficiary of Perry's exit? Newt Gingrich, who received the Texan's swift endorsement, giving the former House speaker, already surging in the polls, the potential of an additional four-point boost.

But wait! Even as Gingrich is catching an updraft, he's coming under sustained fire from his second ex-wife, Marianne, whose sit-down interview with ABC tonight that will reveal that Gingrich pressed her for an "open marriage," and that Newt dropped the bomb of his infidelity on her shortly after she'd been diagnosed with MS and told by the doctor to avoid stress. (These revelations aren't news exactly; Esquire had an amazing Marianne Gingrich exclusive back in August 2010. But this is the first time Newt's cruel behavior is gaining truly national scrutiny.)

For his part, Gingrich is once again casting himself as the victim and a patriot, telling reporters this morning: "We knew we'd get smeared," but "we decided the country was worth the pain." Because, as we all know, the pain of a candidate being exposed as a epic philanderer is worse than that of the sick wife he left behind telling her she was a Jaguar, and he needed to buy American. ("I can't handle a Jaguar," Newt repeatedly told Marianne at the time, adding of his relationship with future wife Callista: "All I want is a Chevrolet.")

Will Marianne's revelations stall Newt's rise? Perhaps. Will Santorum's reversal of fortune in Iowa give him new life? Could happen.

But here's what we know for sure: The stakes in South Carolina just got much higher.

Instead of clearing the field by racking up a sweep of the early states, Mitt Romney is suddenly looking like a guy who could drop two of the first three contests – with the losses coming at the hands of the GOP's weak and wounded.

Mitt still has the resources to grind out victory over the long haul. But a loss in the first-in-the-South primary, coupled to his misfortune in Iowa, would transform Mr. Inevitable into Mr. You Have a Lot of Explaining to Do. 

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